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The Independent Critic

Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, Lucas Black, T.R. Knight, Nicole Beharie, Alan Tudyk, Andre Holland, Christopher Meloni, Hamish Linklater
Brian Helgeland
Rated PG-13
128 Mins.
Warner Brothers
featurette titled “Stepping into History"

 "42" is the kind of sports bio-pic that America should love 
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It was only a couple of years ago while I was inspecting a home on an isolated street on the Eastside of Indianapolis as part of my job coordinating services for individuals with intellectual disabilities that I came face-to-face with the fact that racism is alive in America and even in communities that have for the most part always been a tad more integrated.

I mean, sure I knew racism still exists. After all, all you need to do is hang out on any social networking site when people start talking about Obama to realize that there's a vile hatred that still exists in this country. I'd not had a ton of personal experience with racism, though, with the exception of one fairly modest racially-tinged fight in high school. I grew up in a mostly black neighborhood, had over 50+ surgeries as a child in a hospital where a good majority of the nurses were black, I graduated from a college that was 95% black, and even now I find myself writing this review from my home in a largely black neighborhood on Indy's Eastside.

So, when a large and obviously angry white man came running towards my car as I exited the home I wasn't sure if I needed to call the cops, be afraid or be prepared for this pacifist paraplegic to get my butt kicked. His message was simple - "You better not be movin' any n****** into my neighborhood, because I'll burn them down."

I don't get it. I don't get racism and I never have. It's almost impossible for me to imagine that in my lifetime, Rev. Martin Luther KIng, Jr. was marching and the true civil rights era was really only picking up steam when I was a young child.

42, a sports bio flick about the life and courage and triumphs of Jackie Robinson that doesn't so much water down the pure and vile hatred that Robinson faced as it does make it palatable for mass consumption. One of my fellow critics here in Indy, Joe Shearer of The Film Yap, observed that he would be returning to see the film with his young son and that's a powerful statement about just how successful writer/director Brian Helgeland is in capturing the truth in such a way that a father and his young son will be able to sit down together, watch the film and talk about it afterwards.

That's important. Because, these are conversations that continue to be needed in a nation where expressing your honest opinions can cost you your life or your fame or your career.

I'm thinking of you, Natalie Maines.

For those who don't know, and it's hard to imagine any true sports fan who doesn't know the story of Jackie Robinson, Robinson was the first African-American baseball player to be recruited into Major League Baseball. Before that time, whites and black played baseball but played baseball separately. Robinson himself started off in 1945 with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Baseball League - until he received a call that would change his life from legendary Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey. Rickey opened the door and Robinson, who had a wee bit of a reputation for his feisty responses to institutional racism while a soldier that led to his being court martialed, became one of the sports world's greatest symbols of perseverance, courage, excellence and true sportsmanship in every sense of the word. He was named "Rookie of the Year" in 1947, Most Valuable Player in 1949 and would eventually become the first African-American elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

The success of 42 may very well be indicated most greatly by the fact that even as I write this review, I have tears forming in my eyes both for the aching pain of such powerful racism and because my sense of awe for Robinson has gone from an intellectual exercise into one that is deeply felt. While 42 is for the most part what I like to call "sound byte inspiration," essentially small snippets of scenes brought beautifully to life, the simple truth is that any other approach to this story wouldn't do it justice.

The film kicks off with snippets of reality. Jackie (Chadwick Boseman) is dealing with racism on the road with the the Kansas City Monarchs, while Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) is announcing to his team that he fully intends to have a black player on the Dodgers for the next season.

While 42 is shiny and new and takes full advantage of the wonderful technology of our time, the film also has a decidedly retro feeling to it with a faithfully 40's production design and a wise avoidance of excessive dramatics and unnecessary, distracting humor. This is the Jackie Robinson story, after all, and Helgeland doesn't do anything that will distract from the power of the true story. 42 is a terrific sports drama precisely because it's content to be a terrific sports drama that tells its story in a straightforward, relatively no frills fashion.

If you know the story, then you already know that Jackie Robinson had a successful career in baseball. You won't be sitting around wondering if he makes it through his first season. There's not an ounce of actual "suspense" in his story, other than possibly the suspense of wondering how he endured city after city of such a vile hatred.

Of course, we learn that a good reason for his endurance came in the person of his wife, Rachel (Nicole Beharie), a nursing student who married him just as his career was getting started. The two would have three children together and Robinson, whose father had abandoned him when he was only months old, became determined to give his children the emotional and physical stability he'd never experienced.

But, it wasn't easy. Helgeland's script makes it obvious it wasn't easy without making all of it so graphic that it would be difficult for families to see the film and still call it "entertainment." 42 is an incredibly entertaining and inspirational film, with several scenes that are haunting because you know they unfolded for far more folks than Jackie Robinson.

Robinson's early days on the team weren't easy. Early on, several good ole' boy teammates started a petition threatening to refuse to play with him on their team. There were hotels that suddenly refused to host the team, while in ballpark after ballpark he would face thousands of fans using every word imaginable. There's one scene in particular involving the Phillies manager (Alan Tudyk) that is profound because Helgeland allows the scene to play out over the period of several minutes to give us, the audience, a pretty safe yet vivid idea of exactly what Jackie was enduring in the ballpark that day. D.P. Don Burgess does a great job throughout the film, but he really captures this scene by watching the steely-eyed Jackie struggle to hold in his rage while knowing that losing it would be losing far more than a game. Then, the camera moves around and captures those in the stands and those on the Dodgers who, at least it seems, experience a psychological shift that day that certainly didn't win over the whole team but did turn a corner for Jackie among even many white Americans.

There's more. There's so much more, including an award-worthy performance from Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey. Ford does a remarkable job of playing a man whom many would have defined as stubborn and even crotchety, yet Ford infuses him with a humanity that makes you realize that even for a baseball team owner this is about a whole lot more than money.

God is a Methodist, after all.

Chadwick Boseman has been around Hollywood for a few years, mostly in television, but this should be the role that allows the young actor to blossom. There's not a fake note played here nor an ounce of hype. Boseman captures Robinson as loyal husband, stellar baseball player and proud black man. Boseman embodies the complexities of the situation, exhibiting Robinson's obvious strength and intelligence and growing awareness that his entire career had become about a whole lot more than him. Nicole Beharie could have easily just relaxed into a fairly one-note role as Jackie's wife, but she takes dialogue that's a tad sparse and turns it into a complex and emotionally resonant character who is entirely believable as the woman who truly inspires Jackie Robinson to grow into his greatness.

42 isn't a flawless film, but in a sense a flawless film would have probably felt off-balance in a film that so honestly captures a flawed humanity rising above itself. The film in many ways follows the sports formula almost perfectly, while the film's closing scene was a tad histrionic for a film that had exhaled such a remarkable authenticity and humanity.

© Written by Richard Propes 
The Independent Critic

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